Kamen Estate Wines

By Sunny Brown

Category: Winery of the Month

Robert Kamen is a pretty good storyteller. He can make you laugh, he can make you cry. Chances are he has done both at some point or another. Kamen, or Robert Mark Kamen as his name is displayed in the opening credits of many a famous movie, is a talented and accomplished screenwriter. You may have heard of one or two of his movies: Taps, Lethal Weapon 3, The Fifth Element, and a little project known as The Karate Kid.

What does this have to do with wine, you ask? Kamen also is the proprietor of Kamen Estate Wines in the Sonoma Mountain AVA of eastern Sonoma County. He produces incredible Cabernets and Syrahs that will make you laugh with joy over their depth and richness or weep over their sheer beauty. And while his movies may be more famous his wines have created their own group of rabid fans. Perhaps a few Oscars from the wine world are sure to follow?

Ok, that is the last bad movie pun, I promise. But it is impossible to disconnect the movies from the man from the wine, as each are a part of Robert and of each other.

Robert grew up in humble surroundings in a housing project in Brooklyn. A track scholarship to NYU allowed him to explore a portion of life that he had never experienced, the importance of which has never been lost on Robert. "I was the fastest white guy in New York City, which means I was like the 400th fastest guy in New York City," recalls Robert. "But the scholarship allowed me to read and write and learn about life."

A grant after college allowed Robert to see the world, well at least a certain portion of the world. "I received a grant to follow and record the daily activities of the Bedouin people who lived on the border of Afghanistan and Russia. I found out later that the grant was funded by the U.S. government in an effort to learn how the Bedouins were making their way across the border during the Russian occupation. So I was basically a spy and didn't know it."

Shortly after Robert wrote a screenplay called Crossings about a group of college students and their experiences in Afghanistan. He received a check for $135,000, a huge sum of money to a poor kid from the city. Just a week or two later Kamen was hiking with a friend in the Mayacamas Mountains just to the north of San Pablo Bay and just west of the Napa County line. They came across a piece of property for sale that seemed like heaven itself had slipped from the sky and crash landed on the side of Mount Veeder. Robert was hooked instantly, and the sellers were willing to accept his still warm check from Crossings as a down payment on the property. He didn't even bother to open a bank account.

Robert had a new life, a new career and a new place that he would soon call home. There were just a couple of problems standing in the way of his dream home in this rugged yet breathtaking landscape... namely that of no water, roads or electricity. "There wasn't even an easement," Robert says of the time. Fortunately Robert was a better screenwriter than planner, and the success of the Karate Kid and Taps brought fortune along with fame.

A friend who made wine pointed out the unique nature of the site that Robert now called home and a dream was born. Robert wanted to create the best wine he possibly could from this landscape that was so perfectly suited to the vine, so from the word go he hired Phil Coturri, a noted viticulturalist whose family had been at the forefront of grape growing in California for years. Phil set about moving the many rocks and boulders on the property out of the way just enough to be able to plant vines, no easy task considering that the entire property was a mixture of hard volcanic soils and rocky outcroppings.

Phil and Robert shared a philosophy that the impact of nature should be nurtured, not negated, so they focused their energies on working with the conditions they were given in as natural a way as possible. Chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides have never touched the soils at Kamen Vineyards. A wholly organic approach has been employed since the first vine was planted in 1981.

The 40% grade of the sloping vineyards has always made the land here difficult to work, as does the porous and rocky soil. But the diversity of the soil conditions insures a wide array of complex aromas and flavors in the resulting wines. Several different growing conditions can be found within a single row of vines. At least four different lava flows had occured in the vineyards over the years, resulting in numerous soil types and exposure angles. The weather on this little corner of a mountain in Sonoma results in a long growing season with cool, often foggy mornings followed by hot and sunny afternoons, an environment that grapes seem to thrive in.

So it was of no surprise that after the first grapes were harvested in 1984 that much of the fruit was sold to the top wineries in Sonoma, even though a profit at this point was still hard to come by. But the movies and their success continued to roll on, leading to the 1995 flick A walk in the clouds starring Keanu Reeves and Aitana Sánchez-Gijón as star-crossed lovers who find a small moment of happiness at Sánchez-Gijón's family's winery. The climax ends in a heart-breaking scene where the centuries-old vineyard catches fire and the family's lively hood is lost.

"'But Robert, vines don't burn,' Phil told me," says Robert. "I didn't care. I liked how painful that would be." But as we all know, truth is sometimes stranger than fiction, and fate is not without a certain sense of irony. As it turns out not one year later the vines on Kamen's property did indeed catch fire. In fact, one third of the vines were lost along with Robert's beautiful home. So as it turns out a screenwriter who owned a vineyard who wrote a movie about something that could not possibly happen to a vineyard did indeed have that very same thing happen to his vineyard. Irony, indeed.

As it turns out the vines themselves did not burn, but the rubber pipeline that carried the nutrients to the vines in this incredibly low vigor soil burned instead, thus cutting off the flow of life to the top of the vines. A slow, agonizing death followed. But through this loss an opportunity presented itself for Phil and Robert to create even better vines through more thoughtful clonal selection, the use of different rootstock and employing different planting techniques and spacing within the vines.

In 1999 the first release of Kamen Cabernet received rave reviews. The wines were excellent, full of vigor and life and complexity. But never satisfied, Robert hired winemaker Mark Herold to take his wines from great to really f***ing great as Robert would put it. Mark received a doctorate in Nutritional Biochemistry from U.C. Davis and has received long reaching admiration and respect for his commitment to creating the best wines possible no matter what the expense or labor involved. Herold's success at his own winery Merus along with the many other projects he consults for is well-documented. A partnership between a genius grape-grower, a fanatical winemaker and an owner who was committed 100% was born.

Since then the wines from Kamen Estates have indeed gone from great to really blanking great. Though the Cabernet Sauvignon is still the flagship of the winery, small amounts of Syrah and even a Cabernet Rosé are produced under the Kamen label as well. The wines are truly amazing, and with each passing vintage seem to get even better.

The 2004 Kamen Estate Cabernet Sauvignon is a haunting mix of ripe currents, subtle yet complex earthen notes, blackberry blossom perfume and notes of mocha and vanilla from the French Oak barrels employed at the winery. A hallmark of Kamen's wines are silky textures and chewy tannins found throughout, and the '04 Cab is not short on either. Big enough to toss in the cellar, but integrated enough that the potential is easy to recognize, yet there is the potential to even consume it right this second. This is a delicious bottle of wine.

Just as impressive was the 2005 Kamen Estates Cabernet Sauvignon. More spicy and robust on the nose than the 2004, this wine just seemed to go on and on with aromas of ripe black fruits, baking spices, touches of warm earth and a woodsy note that smelled of a cedar chest with a little incense sitting inside. The palate was rich, chewy and intense with great concentration and a plush feel. The tannins were integrated, but this wine could certainly benefit from short to long term cellaring at this point. The finish lasted a full minute, and I didn't want to put any other flavors in my mouth except for more of this incredible wine.

A real surprise was the 2007 Kamen Estate Rosé of Cabernet Sauvignon, not that I expected it to be bad, just that I have had too many Cabernet rosés that taste as if the winemaker didn't know what to do with the left over juice instead of actually crafting a quality product. But in this case we had a wine that tasted like the best cranberry juice you have ever had in your life. Rich and intense, with an abundant amount of flavor, nuance and spice that seemed to go on forever. Hints of vanilla cream and just a touch of tannin alluded to the full-bodied nature of the grapes grown on Mount Veeder, but the wine did not feel fat or overblown. A real head-turner.

Last but not least was the 2005 Kamen Estate Syrah, which was a well-integrated and seamless wine that started with aromas that ranged from violets and blackberry perfume and finished with flavors of ripe dark fruit, woodsmoke, cassis and a long finish that just seemed to linger on and on. Rich and robust, but balanced with ample tannins and just enough acidity, I am curious to see how this effort will evolve over the next ten years or so. California Syrah continues to get overlooked by the "Any Pinot in a storm" crowd, but with wines such as this, maybe the pendulum will swing back around.

Though Robert may end up best known for his movies, his wines continue to astound. They have just a much smaller release than the big-budget projects that Robert continues to crank out for the big screen. But I urge you seek these wines out at your local store, as they will not disappoint. I can think of nothing better to curl up to when watching The Karate Kid for like the 607th time.